This post has been weighing on my heart. Every time someone refers to themselves as “a single parent when…” or a “married single parent” I feel so unseen, so misunderstood.
I’m not one to focus on my “single parent” status, I tend to focus only on the “parent” part, maybe because being a single parent is the only form of parenting that I’ve ever known, but if I can stop one more person from saying these hurtful words, this is worth saying.
Also, if I can help one person appreciate their partnership – despite it’s unique struggles – that will be worth it as well.
There are two things that bother me about this saying:
It Casts Single Parenting in a Negative Light
Have you ever heard a “married single parent” use the term to describe their experience positively? I haven’t.
My life, like any parent’s, is filled with joy and struggles, but I would say it’s mostly joy. I feel blessed on a daily basis, and would describe myself as a loving, positive person. Just this weekend, I had a new friend (someone I’ve known for over 6 months) express total shock that I was a single parent. It’s just not the definitive label it’s made out to be.
Edited to include: Some readers have reached out to me and said that when they use the term, they don’t intend it negatively, which is great, but for me, it doesn’t negate the insensitivity of the comment or the other 8 points that follow.
It Ignores the Experience of Single Parents
Just like how I wouldn’t call myself a “mom of six children” because I run a daycare during the day, it’s just as ludicrous to equate single parenthood with flying solo for a little while. The act of parenting independently is in reality a very small aspect of single parenting.
There are unique struggles to both single and married parenthood. Often, those struggles are just parenthood. I don’t pretend to know or understand married struggles (though I totally enjoy being the sole person to make parenting decisions).
Now, those whose partners travel for work, I kind of get it. I was a military child, I so appreciate the struggle of having your partner be separated from you for long periods of time, potentially entering dangerous situations, and trying to raise children by yourself, children who may be developing an increasing awareness of their parent’s departures (and the underlying dangers) and acting out based on that.
I cannot imagine the reality of worrying about your spouse during those times, and experiencing those highs and lows of marital relationship and support. I couldn’t imagine knowing that the person you love and are building a life with is now in harm’s way.
But, that is something separate and different from being a single parent. Not better, not worse. Not easier, not harder. And it can be really hard trying to describe what that looks like — “military spouse” or “military parent” just doesn’t seem to convey the struggles accurately. I get that you are searching for a term that conveys to others what it is exactly that you experience, but in searching for understanding of your experience by using this term, you show just how much you misunderstand mine.
But, it’s not just military spouses that refer to themselves as “single parents” when they are not.
People now throw out the term casually to refer to when their partner is at work, or during sport seasons, or if their partner isn’t being as supportive as they feel they should.
I get that you might feel alone, and maybe that’s what you’re trying to say. Then say that. My single parenting experience might be solo, but it is not negative. Writing this post is a bit weird for me, because I feel like I’m accentuating the hard aspects, when really, I’m living it up and reveling in the beauty that is creating a life with my little girl.
There is something amazing that is possible within a romantic relationship: you can picture a future and work together to create it. You can build a loving and unique relationship with another adult. That is something so special, and it is something that single parents don’t experience, and live with the very real possibility that they may never experience it (again).
While many of us are open to meeting someone new, that becomes a whole lot harder with the restrictions of parenthood (could you imagine navigating your old dating life and a three year old?!), and we now have this added dimension to consider: is this new person good enough for my child? Is he ready or capable of loving my child like his own should we have more children together one day?
2. Shared Responsibilities
All of the things that help run a household don’t get cut in half when there’s only one parent. Garbage still needs to make it to the curb, the car still needs to get serviced, and the house needs to get cleaned. (OK, that might be a bit easier when there isn’t another adult to clean up after!)
There is never a day where I can ask someone to pitch in a bit more; it doesn’t matter if I’m sick, studying for an exam, or just tired, it needs to get done.
3. Personal Time
Okay, so those whose partners’ are gone for lengthy periods of time completely understand this, but they may have the ability to pay for a sitter to allow for some personal time (a benefit of two incomes), but when you’re a single parent, you don’t often get a break unless someone reaches out.
I crave quiet time, or time to create by myself. I am a published poet, but I haven’t even had the energy or time to write a single poem since becoming pregnant. It’s something I’d love to see change this year.
4. Navigating The Conversation With Your Child
For those with spouses who travel for work, you understand how tricky it can be to explain why your partner isn’t there, or why they are missing something, like a special occasion or achievement.
I have to explain to my child why her “father” is missing her life. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of explaining that a good man helped me become a mom, but he wasn’t ready to become a dad. I used to refer to myself as both her mommy and her daddy, but as she gets older she is increasingly upset about this person who chose not to be in her life.
Update: Already, school events have become difficult for her. Kids have asked her invasive questions about where her “dad” is – suggesting that he must be dead if she’s never met him.
5. Comparison and Competition
Connected to the above point, I am worried that I won’t be able to provide on the same level as my daughter’s friends’ parents, and that she will resent that or feel deprived. This is not just about the lower income potential of one person versus two, but is also about the manpower of two people.
You know those moments where your spouse does something special with the kids that you would have never thought of? Or those nights where you divide up the tasks so life actually works (even if it’s just one person stays in the house with the sleeping children while the other runs errands)? Please appreciate that.
6. Living on One Income in a Two Income World
Housing, childcare costs, and even something as simple as a hotel rental – the world is built for double adult occupancy and doing all of that on one income can be hard, and can involve compromises that you could not imagine.
Even if one parent doesn’t bring in an income, they are likely doing things at home that help reduce the need for that second income – alleviating the need for childcare, making homemade meals, etc. I always find it so ironic when people call themselves a single parent when their partner is absent for work — when I’m single parenting, no one else is taking care of our financial health. No one else is out there, supporting the family.
7. Invasive Questions
Because I’ve been a single mom since I was 5 months pregnant, I’ve had a lot of invasive questions. People don’t often meet single moms of infants or toddlers, so very invasive questions were often asked during first meetings, some of them very rude and judgmental.
While I feel like the questions have lessened since my daughter is now 3 years old, they still happen. I don’t know why people think it’s okay to ask the finer details of my daughter’s conception, or expect me to disparage half of her parentage, or think that I want to discuss a long-ended relationship, but they do.
Even asking if and when I expect to date again — unless you have a potential partner in mind, that question just makes me feel like a loser. (Full disclosure.)
Not having another partner to tag out with, not having the potential for more children (until my status changes), and sometimes having additional (or different) work schedules can make it hard to find and make friends, or maintain those relationships in the same ways.
Some of my friends regularly host mother’s night outs or book club meetings after their kids go to bed, and I look forward to attending when my daughter is ready to have a babysitter take over — but she’s not ready to be left alone at night with someone else. Our one sleepover attempt was an utter failure, and when my parents do offer to help out it is under the strict understanding that I am studying or cleaning. (I did try to host some friends once… and with Miss G’s auditory issues it was a complete and utter disaster.)
Edited to add: we’re now old enough for a babysitter to take over, but a new problem has presented itself: driving a babysitter home at the end of the night means waking my daughter up and loading her in a car at a late hour. It feels incredibly selfish to interrupt her healthy sleep so I can go out, so my social life is confined to what I can host in my living room.
PS – the ninth point is that it casts single parenting in a negative light, but that was mentioned in the beginning and don’t want to repeat myself too much!
Thank you for taking the time to read this list, and for letting me speak from my heart. I hope that if you are feeling single or lonely in your relationship, that maybe this can give you some bits to be appreciative of, or encourage you to seek change. I don’t want to diminish anyone else’s struggles, nor make it seem like single parenting is one big struggle — hello, unilateral decision making! — but I do want to encourage those who use this phrase to seek out a different term to describe their experience, one that doesn’t diminish mine. My friend who is a military spouse uses the term, “married, flying solo” which I love. It has a positive connotation, it doesn’t co-opt the title of single parents, and it still gets the point across.